The culturally different undead | Lecture on the anthropology of zombies reviews different cultures walking dead

Hannah Coates
Contributing Writer

The zombie apocalypse has arrived!

It’s not an uncommon topic of discussion these days, with multiple pop culture outlets turning their attention to the brain-eating undead and their dreaded bite.

Zombie culture is somewhat of a recent fad, starting in 2003 with Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide.” In following years, books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” shows like “The Walking Dead” and movies like “Zombieland” pervaded the media scene. On a more serious note, we even have the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” manual.

But where do these stories originate? How were these beasts conceived? Could these necromantic legends actually be real?

Amy Nichols-Belo of Randolph Macon College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology has done extensive research in attempts to answer these very questions and she graciously opened VCU’S 2012-2013’s Anthropology Speaker Series this past Friday the Commons Theater to talk about zombies.

This series, according to professor Christopher Brooks, the Director of the School of World Studies and Coordinator of Anthropology, was created to “show students in introductory courses what was possible with a degree in anthropology.”

Nichols-Belo’s lecture, “From Invisible Laborer to the Brain Eating Undead: The Anthropology of Zombies” discussed the roots of “zombielore” in Haitian and Tanzanian cultures, which has helped form the populace’s general understanding of zombies.

“To Americans, zombies are slow-moving, moaning creatures or perhaps ghastly naked men that run at breakneck speeds taking victims and eating their brains,” Nichols-Belo said.  “Zombie stories usually involve some sort of contaminant or contagion but (in) countries like Haiti and Africa, zombies are made with magic for the sole purpose of control.”

In American culture, zombies are entertaining and scary, but for Haitians and Africans the fear of zombification goes deeper than simply being “turned.” Both cultures have suffered immensely at the hands of slavery, so anxiety over capture and forced control resonates profoundly with their people. In Haiti, voodoo witch-doctors are often to blame for the zombification of a loved one while in Africa, witches seek the most skilled laborers to zombify to do their work for them, according to Nichols-Belo.

While researching in Tanzania, Nichols- Belo came in contact with many individuals claiming to either have seen a zombie or escaped zombification themselves. In one village, she said there was a boy who everyone saw dead and buried, who returned years later with tattered clothes and the inability to speak, but otherwise very much alive.

Nichols-Belo believes there is more to the story than brain-thirsty individuals or captives of a witch. She looks deeper into socio-cultural anxieties of histories and harsh realities the cultures have faced.

So why, according to Nichols-Belo, do Americans fear the zombie? She says terrorism is one source.

While slavery has been a historical fear for the Haitians and Africans, American culture fears terrorism, and after 9/11 that fear escalated, Nichols-Belo explained in her lecture. Seeing our familiar cities crumble and falter in mass confusion is the closest apocalyptic catastrophe Americans have faced “…and what is more terroristic than an enemy that continuously reproduces (like zombies)?” Nichols-Belo asked.

“I came for the extra credit but I ended up actually enjoying what she had to say,” said Allison Gong, a freshman anthropology student who attended the lecture. “I never thought to look at a passing fad at such an interesting angle.”

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